J.M. Roberts

  • Europe: Privilege and Protest 1730-1789 by Olwen Hufton
    Fontana, 398 pp, £2.50, May 1980, ISBN 0 00 636109 9

1789, alas, is the great year of the 18th century. That is one of the problems in characterising the age: whenever it is thought to begin – in 1700, or with the death of Louis XIV in 1714, or in 1730 as Professor Hufton has had to accept for her new book – we always seem to finish up at the Tennis Court or the Bastille. There is overwhelming pressure to see the century as an age before the deluge, everything in it being placed and scrutinised in the light of the great revolution to come.

Even at the time, people began to see things in this way. Condorcet’s famous essay – written under the Revolution – is one marker. But the accepted view achieved its settled form in the 19th century. For good or ill, it then came to be agreed that what mattered – indeed, all that mattered – in the decades before 1789 was what could be connected with the Revolution. The 18th century was seen in terms of a mounting tide of liberalism; despotism was the enemy. The history of its ideas revealed it to be the second great phase (the Reformation was the first) of European history as the story of liberty, demonstrating the development of a critical, analytical mode of thought which gnawed away the foundations of certainty and prepared men for the onrush of intellectual freedom. And this is probably still the way most of us see it. It is a Whig view, full of assumptions about the inevitability of progress and the signs by which progress could be recognised. Only twenty years or so ago, it received concentrated expression once again in a book with the revealing title The Age of the Democratic Revolution.

Some important truths were mixed up with these ideas, as well as much that was skewed, disproportioned and downright anachronistic. They provided a framework for historical study which has only finally broken down in the last couple of decades. Every schoolboy now knows about an ‘early modern’ era which has a quite different appearance from the 16th and 17th centuries sketched by (say) the old Cambridge Modern History. The old view of the 18th century has lasted longer. What is more, it always nurtured scholarly achievement. Boring as many students and teachers now find them, the great virtuosos of diplomatic history who unravelled le secret du roi, the Diplomatic Revolution or the Partitions of Poland wrote books of still almost unshakable authority. Some of them attacked the problems of commercial relations which increasingly shaped international affairs, incidentally uncovering much economic history. But such achievements, though real, produced at best deep penetration on narrow fronts. Too much in other sectors was left unattacked and even unreconnoitred.

This was largely because the traditional perspective was preoccupied with states and the relations between them (especially if they had some obvious relation to later questions of nationalism), and it was coloured by moralism: points were awarded to ‘winners’, those who somehow could be seen to be on the side of the causes which were presumed to triumph in 1789 (our sophisticated doubts about the Revolution being ‘victorious’ in any sense were unknown even a couple of decades ago). ‘Losers’ (the Papacy, rulers who failed to carry out reforms, social conservatives with uncomprehended points of view) got bad marks and less attention. The received notion of the 18th century, in fact, was a typical product of the triumphant progressive culture of the 19th century. Free trade, reform and the printing press were good: tradition, corporatism and the last enchantments of the Middle Ages were, unless strictly confined to historical novels and museums, bad.

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